#ukfechat – regular chat for those interested in Further Education

Recently, I found myself reading a few posts in my Twitter stream at the same time #ukfechat was getting started. The conversation takes place every Thursday from 9PM.

I’ve not really participated in an organised Twitter chat before. Once or twice I’ve posted the odd item with the #edchat or #ukedchat tags if I’ve thought it relevant to those who regularly do participate in these conversational threads. The #ukfechat session is hosted by William Jenkins (@edtech_stories) and friends. Being one of many who contributed to his recent reports I felt a little more inclined to join in.

What was the experience like for me? Mixed is perhaps the best answer.

The start of the session is easy enough – one question to get things started. #ukfechat is fairly new to the Twitter chat arena, so conversation is lighter than others for the moment. Ultimately, the relevance of the subject for any given session determines whether you are going to participate fully. Having a support role (rather than curriculum), participating is highly dependent upon how relevant the subject is to my experience.

As the session continues, the timeline becomes a little more challenging to follow. You see, despite the theme being set out beforehand, conversation flows from the starting point to encompass the points of others. For me, at least, here’s where confusion can creep in. When the conversation includes more than one view expressed in quick succession, too many posts can quickly overwhelm the feed. I’m not yet certain of the best approach in these instances, but perhaps the best idea is simply to slow down and allow the conversation to settle, then offering your reply to specific individuals along with the hashtag – assuming this leaves you enough free characters to actually make a point.

Despite my stumbling, #ukfechat is a great opportunity for anyone working in FE to get involved in a largely positive and constructive conversation directly related to the sector – and I would encourage any reader to at least check out the conversation, even if you don’t want to participate right away.

Want to get involved? You can join the #ukfechat every Thursday from 9PM. Archives of each session are available via the #ukfechat website.

If you haven’t read any of William’s reports, why not start with Twitter in FE which examines the success and failure of Twitter as a tool for educators, or Tech Stories that uses Toy Story as a window to explore the unique characteristics of technology in an educational context.

Teachers, Twitter and no connections

Plenty of people draw the conclusion that ‘young people don’t use Twitter‘. Huh? Sure, many don’t, but a growing number do use the short messaging platform to keep in touch with their peers. After all, if you have Internet access, either via your smartphone, or through a infrastructure service, it’s far more cost effective than paying for every one of those text messages (of course, if you have been smart enough to get a Blackberry you can send free IM’s to your BB owning friends through their messenger service).

I find it so frustrating that for many teachers, they don’t see Twitter as a means of communicating their message, and instead regard it as interference; a noise that must be filtered or blocked out. For the tuned in teacher, there is much potential in amplifying the messages associated with their curriculum delivery, and also in branching out beyond the ‘walled garden’.

So, in the early stages for a teacher using Twitter, is it ‘all about the connections’? Maybe, and maybe not. For the Twitter newbie, there aren’t many connections. There may not be many until you have really got the hang of the tool. Just using an app like Twitter is enough challenge for some users, let alone getting comfortable with the social communication aspects. Later on, you’ll soon find some Tweeps to follow – but only when you’ve figured out what ‘following‘ is all about, of course.

What I’m leading towards here is the idea that in the first instance for a teacher who is communicating to a known group of learners perhaps there is, in fact, the need for only one connection – to the VLE. Why? Well, if learners really aren’t using Twitter, then don’t try and force them into it; that just isn’t going to work. Instead, get that Twitter stream exposed to learners through the appropriate course in your VLE. Punch a great big hole into that course with some content from outside!

Many learning environments include the option to include publishing of an RSS feed alongside your learning materials. It’s certainly not a new or particularly technique, and your friendly VLE admins will be pleased to help get something like this setup (they, after all, want to make sure you make the most of the tools the provide for you). There is one important thing to do: specify either that the RSS feed display your Tweets and nothing else, or displays all Tweets that include a particular hashtag (a keyword). In this way, the content is filtered. No distractions.

Next step? Start publishing content – via Twitter! It doesn’t have to be much at first. Maybe a few prompts for learners – reminders about assignments, study tips, or pointers to reference materials, and perhaps some links to external content. Watch it magically appear in our course. If you have published your RSS feed carefully, and explained to your learners why it is there, all they need do is keep their eye on it when they sign up for interesting content that you have Tweeted.

Are our staff really getting excited about Twitter?

I am filled with enthusiasm this morning following the unexpected return of Twitter to everybody’s thoughts. It’s been discussed before and generated some very clear opposition – another distraction, something else to demand teacher time, another thing we have to do / learn / manage. This time however, the conversation isn’t negative. Surprisingly (and refreshingly) it is positive!

In only a matter of a few days with the support and drive from senior management, a small but growing and very keen group of support staff have already signed up. Staff will be encouraged to pledge their participation via Twitter. Next week we launch the concept to all staff during a start of week briefing, and a wider group of participants will be invited to join the movement.

Maybe this request for participation in Twitter is a little too specific; perhaps participation in social networking via the medium of their choice would garner more support – but from an organisational point of view, far more difficult to track participation, and lack the emergence (if successful) of a college community. Many staff may be reluctant to participate actively (and some are signing up and choosing to have all their tweets protected). These staff may become onlookers until the time is right for them. Perhaps once enough groundswell has been achieved and tweeting becomes something more routine they will build the confidence to tweet and understand the benefit that can be found in extending their learning network by joining a vast online community.

Support from senior managers has already been identified as key in the establishment of effective development strategies, and particularly so where technology is involved. How far do our senior management staff support the implementation of new technologies? Could greater participation from them deliver greater returns with a ‘leading by example’ approach? Strategy is usually conceived with the consultation of broad groups of stakeholders, with the polish and approval of concepts being added at management level. In the operational sense, much of this new technology will be delivered by middle management and their direct reports – and can feel like a struggle. What about the culture? Culture can make or break an initiative. The culture of the involved parties not only needs to respond positively to change, but in the case of new technologies also be prepared to challenge the convention. How could a messaging / blog platform that only allows for 140 character posts possibly be successful? Clearly enough people were prepared to try the concept and prove its value and communicate the benefits. Cultural changes often come about through the leadership and vision of a few individuals. I am very lucky and rely upon the support of visionary and hands on senior managers to encourage innovation and nurture change. Elsewhere, could more of those visionary individuals and innovative participators be senior managers? If so, should that vision be applied not just in through strategic delivery, but also adoption of the very tools and skills demanded from the wider organisation?